By Steve Hubrecht 

[email protected] 

A provincial bill that prohibits municipal governments in B.C. from holding public hearings on development proposals already consistent with their official community plans (OCP) has been getting a lot of attention lately.

Bill 44 was introduced last fall by the B.C. government, and ever since one aspect of it has come under heavy criticism — that if a development proposal (even one that requests a zoning change) is consistent with an existing OCP, then municipal governments are no longer legally allowed to have a public hearing on the matter.

The bill is intended to streamline housing creation, and help tackle the province-wide housing crisis.

Here in the Columbia Valley local officials offered mixed views on the new bill.

Invermere Mayor Al Miller said he understands the intent of the bill “but I do think it’s very important for our local citizens to have a say . . . I don’t like the idea that they may not have a say, or at least feel like they don’t have a say. We value citizen input on most subjects, and that holds true for development proposals.”

Miller noted that even though a proposed development may align with Invermere’s OCP, and indeed may even already be allowed under current zoning bylaws, it can still have impacts on neighbourhoods and generate controversy. These impacts may not have been thought of when the OCP and zoning bylaws were initially put in place, the mayor noted.

He gave several examples of properties in Invermere — one at the south end of Westside Park that is already zoned for a “gas bar” (a very small gas service station), for instance, or the one downtown that once was to be the site of a large resort-style convention centre and hotel. Both those developments were initially proposed more than a decade ago, but neither ultimately came to fruition. In both these instances, zoning is already in place for these properties allowing development (although the zoning for the resort-convention centre was ‘down-zoned’ — i.e. somewhat scaled back — several years ago), and theoretically a developer could now come and revive long dormant plans for these properties — and the District of Invermere would not be allowed to hold a public hearing about it.

Miller is not sure that’s right. “I think there should be at the very least an opportunity for the public to have specific input.”

Radium Mayor Mike Gray sees the issue a bit differently, although he did agree that development proposals in Radium typically don’t stir controversy as much as those in Invermere seem to.

“There’s still public consultation on what type of development residents want or don’t want. It’s just that the timeline for it has shifted, to when the OCP is being done. It’s a shift to proactive public feedback,” said Gray. “The bill also doesn’t stop public consultation on very controversial things. If someone proposed setting up, say, a nuclear reactor in town or a pig farm, there would still need to be a public hearing.”

He pointed out that, in the past, Radium has held many public hearings on relatively mundane development proposals which drew only one or two curious residents. Cutting that out, and saving on the bureaucracy entailed is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Gray, “as long as you play within the OCP guidelines.”

Gray noted the Village of Radium Hot Springs is currently in the process of re-doing its OCP, so Radium residents here will have plenty of chances to make their voices heard on development as the village creates its new plan. He also said that if Radium residents do have strong concerns about Bill 44, he will gladly bring them to provincial officials.

The Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) has already addressed the topic, with RDEK planning supervisor Karen MacLeod explaining in a press release in January that Bill 44 impacts “not only how the (RDEK) board considers the applications, but also the timing of the public’s ability to comment on affected applications.”

In the future, when development zoning amendment proposals that are consistent with the OCP come forward to the RDEK board, instead of a public hearing, the RDEK will “provide a notice prior to the board meeting where the application will be considered,” outlined MacLeod. These notices will be posted on the RDEK’s website (on the ‘meetings and notices page’).

“The important thing for the public to know is that while the process might look a little different for some applications, the ability for the public to engage and provide comment remains available,” added MacLeod.